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The Battle of Blair Mountain, Round Two

Once the site of a historic labor showdown, the West Virginia ridge is again the backdrop for a fight between activists and Big Coal.

| Fri Nov. 12, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The site had barely received historical status when the listing started to unravel. West Virginia's State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which had originally nominated the site, informed the National Park Service in April 2009 that it believed there was an error in the application, and objections from landowners had been "unintentionally overlooked." The SHPO's move came after lawyers working for the coal companies in the area produced its own list of landowners who objected to the listing—after the deadline for comment had passed. As a result, the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places removed the site from the list on December 30, 2009.

Listing advocates say that in addition arriving too late, the new list was full of errors—including the names of people who were dead and those who weren't actually the rightful landowners, says Harvard Ayers, an archeology professor at Appalachian State University and a member of Friends of Blair Mountain. They accused the coal companies of drumming up the list in order to prevent the site from being protected. "They'd like to get rid of the history and they'd like to take the millions of dollars of coal out of there as cheaply as possible," says Regina Hendrix, a board member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and a volunteer with the Sierra Club.

Now the state is "in the process of doing research for the renomination of Blair Mountain," says Jacqueline Proctor, deputy commissioner of West Virginia's Division of Culture and History. The office has retained a lawyer to conduct yet another property owner search and survey, though the office declined to offer a timeline for a new decision.

"Everybody recognizes this is a historic resource, but by virtue of that property ownership part of the equation it can't get listed yet," says Susan Pierce, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer.

In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Blair Mountain as one of the "most endangered" historical sites in the country. The nonprofit joined with Sierra Club and other groups in a letter asking the National Park Service to reconsider its delisting in July, but were denied.

Advocates for protecting the site like Ayers and Hendrix worry that time is growing short for the mountain. Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Friends of Blair Mountain, and the West Virginia Labor History Association filed suit against the Department of Interior in September, arguing that the Park Service's decision to delist was "erroneous" and that proper protocols were not followed. Paul Loether, chief of the National Register of Historic Places, told Mother Jones via email that the ball is back in the West Virginia SHPO's court to formally re-nominate the site. Once they do, he said, "We will process as expeditiously as possible."

Advocates worry that in the meantime, coal companies could simply buy up more property nearby while the new search for landowners is underway, or they could start work on their portions of the land, like clearing trees and brush, which could compromise its historical integrity. "I think it's in dire danger," says Hendrix. While she says she'd be supportive of underground mining to access the coal seams in the mountain, the companies are looking to surface-mine the site, a process that requires clearing trees and topsoil before blasting through rock layers with explosives. That kind of mining would inevitably destroy the mountain.

And if the mountain goes, so does the history it has witnessed. "It's difficult enough to discuss labor history in this country," says Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, which has also encouraged the National Park Service to reconsider the listing. "When the places where labor history occurred are wiped off the map, it becomes even more difficult to talk about them."

And to have coal companies like Massey and Arch mining there adds insult to injury, says labor historian Simmons. "It is sacred ground. People were killed in order to have basic rights of unionization," he says. "The idea that they're going to blow that mountain up to extract some coal for profits by non-union operations is really a horrendous irony."

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